Greatings everyone–it’s great to be breathing life back into the blog. I’m not sure what happened–it seems the end of the summer got away from me, or I got away from it, or everything in my world got away from everything else. Well, part of it is that I’m working hard on the book that will follow Slash of Crimson. For now, however, I’m happy to be back on the website again, and what better way to kick things off than with a review of the latest novel from perhaps the best dark fiction author writing today. Without further ado, find below a review of Tom Piccirilli’s The Last Kind Words:
Tom Piccirilli is a writer who understands the angles of crime noir. I don’t just mean innovation, an original spin on crime families or bank heists. I mean the shapes of deception, the math behind the form, the way acts like theft and murder can be traced back to emotions and motives that can’t be understood from the outside. He knows that if you want to know why there’s smoke, you have to look under the hood.
I’ve been a fan of Piccirilli’s work for a long time. I wrote a review of The Coldest Mile some years ago and posted it on Amazon (link here). In it I gave a little history of what I saw as his journey from supernatural horror mixed with crime noir to the straight up crime thriller. I won’t repeat that history here, but only say that, from the angle of a horror writer, there is still much to glean from this author’s unique brand of fast-paced surreal lyricism mixed with concrete realism.
Thus, The Last Kind Words tells the story of the Rand family whose members have a near magical ability to prowl, steal and deceive. I say near magical because aside from their success at stuffing their old house with nooks and crannies full of strange loot and cash, they are haunted by vicious emotions that come inherited from generations of living outside the law.
The story begins with Terry Rand returning home to deal with his brother Collie’s execution. Collie has been on death row for years for a killing spree that left five dead. But despite his insane rampage, he hands off an unsolved crime to his brother, along with an implication as beautiful and ugly as a stolen diamond ring, that some of the murders on the spree were committed by someone else, someone who his thief brother may have the right skills to stop.
The search for the killer becomes the catalyst for Terry’s hell-like journey through his past. And here is where Piccirilli’s artistry rises—he creates a Long Island that is a world of its own—a world of mobsters, gun dealers, sly police and quaky prostitutes that make the novel’s pages glow with tension and allure. Beneath it all cruises Terry’s dark reflection, his attempts to understand what it means to be born of a family of thieves, and whether and to what degree its morality is different from the hit-men and murderers and other criminals with whom they traffic. Without spoiling how it plays in, the book’s title becomes a gloss for his revelation about this morality at the story’s climax. What it means to exchange ‘kind words’ when surrounded by cruelty and imperfect family becomes the book’s crucial insight.
It’s amazing that Piccirilli is able to pull off this kind of moral exploration without coming off as cheesy, preachy, or most importantly, dull. Instead, all characters, from Terry’s sharp-witted teenage sister to his burglar father and pair of card shark uncles, become intriguing suspects. Each also becomes a portrait of someone we can equally love to hate and love to sympathize with. If George R.R. Martin has proven a master of the panoramic cast of characters, of mixing the good with the bad, Piccirilli has shown what it means to discover the varying beauties among the bad, the worst and the not-too-terribly-awful. To be a master of crime fiction, it is not enough to just be ‘gray’ in one’s morals. It requires reinventing morality itself, and reinventing it in a way that can be understood in its own dark context. To convey this in a landscape fraught with figurative language that still keeps the pacing makes The Last Kind Words a suspense novel worth reading. Not just because the story is so easy to enjoy, but because its insights into the dark side of family are something which we all, sooner or later, will likely find of use.